It was only when I heard the violin playing that I knew Rebecca was back again. She was something of a drifter, often disappearing from her apartment for weeks on end without telling anyone where she was going, let alone when she would return.
Long and pale and quiet, Rebecca could lose herself easily in a crowd. Oddly, her height went unnoticed; she had a way of hunching down into her shoulders that made her gangly form fold up like an accordion. I could never recognise her from behind, and even when meeting her head-on it would take a moment to register who she was.
I’d often find her busking cross-legged on some corner, fronds of soft, dark hair hanging over her face; she always seemed part of the street around her, as if she had grown fungus-like from the pavement.
After I fell in love with Rebecca she became easier to find, but only a little. Her music was far more memorable than her face. She played the violin like a devil’s dream, queer and haunting and beautiful. Her instrument was battered, second-hand, and almost always missing a string. Yet still she made the old girl sing for her, each piece utterly self taught.
Rebecca couldn’t read sheet music and had no desire to, the same way that she never wished to perform professionally, or enter the public eye. The idea of recognition repulsed her; she was too mellow and too reticent for the harsh spotlight of fame. But amongst artists’ circles she gained the distinction of a prodigy, a status towards which she was neutral, or so it always appeared.
Rebecca was quite impossible to read, and to look at her you would never pin her as a violinist. She dressed in strange, artfully shapeless clothes in earthy shades, browns and blacks and ruddy scarlet; people always assumed that she was a painter or a poet rather than a musician, and were surprised to learn that she was all three.
Her favourite outfit was a baggy orange jumpsuit I used to joke looked like a convict’s uniform, that buttoned up from crotch to throat. I recall it vividly, for Rebecca was wearing it the first time that we made love.
Each tiny fastening popped open under my fingers, the smooth material snagging and pulling taut across her flat chest. Her nipples had been as hard as the buttons and cold, cold as her open lips. I kissed them, left and right, but even in pleasure Rebecca’s face was quite serene.
Her eyes—walled brown and hazel—were closed, and in the gloom the lashes were half-rings of darkness. I touched the jaw of that drawn, distant face almost reverently, and only then did she slide the stupid jumpsuit from her body.
The whispering rustle it made as it rolled down over her hips is clearer to me now than the sound of her moans, but there is no shame in that. Clothing was part of Rebecca, the presence she made of herself.
Sometimes I felt as if she were an empty room, filling herself with brighter things to hide the stains on the walls. I thought that if I glimpsed them I might come to know her better, but I never did. We only made love, the empty room and I.
When Rebecca had been merely an acquaintance her regular departures hadn’t troubled me; it was understood by everyone who knew her that sooner or later she’d be back, slightly thinner, and somewhat richer from her earnings in the street. We’d all seen her play to rapturous spectators until coins surged up from her collecting hat like water; she always seemed to find enough to pay the landlord and feed herself, at any rate, although like many young artists she was frequently poor.
Sometimes a rumour would circulate that Rebecca was in London and would be there for the month, or that she was doing a stint in Paris that might last a year or a fortnight, as the mood took her. Mostly she was only ever away for two or three weeks before coming home again, but now that we were lovers I could no longer take this as a matter of course.
I begged Rebecca to tell me where she was heading, and when I could expect her back, futility in motion. Giving me an evasive look from behind those thin sheathes of hair she would simply shrug her shoulders, murmuring something indistinct under her breath. The last time this happened I grew impatient with her, but Rebecca only laughed and leaned forward to pat me fondly on the head.
“Don’t,” I snapped at her, jerking her hand away. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just give me a straight answer for once?”
Rebecca dropped her gaze, still mumbling. She rounded the edge of the violin with the tip of her thumb in a way that appeared casual, but was really an indication of nerves, brittle and unsettled. Under normal circumstances I might have perceived her anxiety and relented, but then I was too irritated to notice.
“Bec, I worry about you when you just drop out of the world like this,” I said. “I worry about it all the time. What could happen to you out there. Have you ever thought about that?”
“No,” said Rebecca, simply.
I wasn’t surprised. A loner, Rebecca wasn’t in the habit of keeping steady lovers, and I suspected ours was the first stable relationship she’d ever had. We didn’t share an apartment, staying in flats whose doors were conveniently opposite one another, but ordinary couple behaviour such as having meals together seemed peculiar to her.
I had to work very hard to stop her drifting away, as was her habit, but we loved one another deeply enough to make it work, despite her nature.
“Please tell me where you’re going,” I urged her. “Even just, like, a vague location, I don’t care. I just need you to give me something.”
“Something,” said Rebecca and, cupping my face in her broad, skinny hands which were always cool, she kissed me.
As agitated as I was I responded by kissing her in turn, because I sensed, in her voice, that even she didn’t know where she was off to any more than I did. She was merely wandering from place to place, catching as many buses or trains it took for her to reach somewhere that she could settle for a while, spreading her ethereal roots.
It occurred to me only in hindsight that Rebecca might have been depressed, and that her nomadic tendencies were merely her way of dealing with that unhappiness alone. She’d never mentioned it to anyone, nor had any of us, at that time, suspected it.
Rebecca was widely regarded as such a calm, level creature, like an owl, perhaps, or some gentle eremite, impervious to suffering, or grief. But she had no family of any kind save for myself, and as much as she appreciated her solitude I think that she was lonely.
Yet this did not stop her from leaving, and this time Rebecca was away for over six months without so much as a letter to reassure me that all was well. I asked around everywhere for her without much luck.
There were countless vague witness accounts of a tall, androgynous girl with a violin case slung on one shoulder, getting onto a tram, or leaving a café, or sitting on a wall, her long legs trailing to the ground. But there are a hundred such girls in London, and none of them were Rebecca.
This time not even the other buskers—who always kept a sharp eye out for competition—had seen her, and I grew steadily more and more anxious that something had happened, the way it so often does to women travelling alone.
My friends tried to console me, reminding me that she had always come back before, but I wasn’t satisfied. I even called the police, but they seemed ambivalent about about her case, so similar to hundreds of other they dealt with every day. So I began waiting for bad news, waking every morning with my mouth sour with dread.
And then I heard the violin again.
Despite there being several other musicians in my apartment building it was unmistakably Rebecca. The sheer, eerie loveliness of the music could only be of her making, and upon hearing it I felt quite dizzy with relief despite its melancholic resonance.
I went across to Rebecca’s flat and rapped on the door, calling her name through the keyhole. The music stopped instantly. There was such a long, thick silence that I wondered if she was going to turn me away, but then there came a scrabbling from the other of the door, and it swung inward.
At once I was struck by a foul smell, a ripe stink of neglect and decay that made me suck in my breath and clap a hand over my nose. Yet, glancing around, I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, for the flat was as clean as ever besides a little dust.
Rebecca stood swaying before me, swallowed in a clay-coloured poncho that, for all its swaddling, failed to hide how slender she’d become. Her face was so pale that it was almost yellow, and her eyes, always heavy-lidded, were drooped half-closed.
“You’re ill,” I said, aghast.
Rebecca shook her head. I tried not to watch as loose hairs slipped from her scalp and twirled through the stagnant air.
“I was,” she said. “But I’m not anymore. I’m fine. Do I look awful?”
I bit my lip and shuffled in the doorway.
“Sorry,” said Rebecca, vaguely. “You want to come in?”
I did, although the smell was difficult to bear. Rebecca appeared not to notice it, climbing into her bed and stretching out under the covers, catlike, the way she always had. The grey trickles of sunlight weeping through the minute crack in the curtains made her look even worse, but I took her word for it that she was recovering and got into bed with her.
Her flesh felt cool and clammy, and she shivered, only stopping when I put an arm around her and held her long body to mine. She relaxed, all the stiff tension in her form crumbling.
In my head I interrogated her about what illness she’d suffered, and in what city, and what company. But to speak any of this aloud would be fruitless, I knew, so I stayed silent, my still lips at her brow.
A good half hour passed before Rebecca said a word, but when she did I sat up, my weight carried on one elbow.
“Do you really love me?” she asked. “Really me, I mean, not the Rebecca everybody thinks they know. Really me.”
I was used to these strange, philosophical questions from her. It was like coming home.
“I do love you,” I said. “Even though I still don’t know much about you, and you’re not much like other people. All the time you were gone it was like I was grieving, only there was no grave, or anything like that. I just kept thinking about you, over and over. You have no idea how much you matter to me.”
I didn’t tell her that I had forgotten her face; I hated myself for that.
“But why?” asked Rebecca.
She had turned over onto her back so that she faced the ceiling, gazing up at the thick white swirls of paint there as if she was transfixed by them.
“If you don’t know who I am,” she said. “So how can you love me?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly.
The conversation suddenly made me feel deeply uncomfortable.
“I suppose I don’t really need to know to care about you. It’s like a lot of stuff in life; you don’t have to have a reason. You just feel things. But why are you asking? It’s never bothered you before.”
“It’s never been important to me before,” said Rebecca.
I sat up even straighter against the headboard.
“So what changed? What happened while you were away?”
Rebecca didn’t reply. She closed her eyes and shuddered, gently, arms crossing over her chest like a sleeping vampire. I leaned forward to kiss her, and found myself running my hands through her tangled hair. To my revulsion a couple of dead moths dropped out of it onto the pillows, and when I reached tentatively around I found that there were bald patches at the back of her scalp.
Whatever was wrong with Rebecca was much more serious than she’d allowed me to believe, and I was frightened.
I seized her cold face between my hands.
“Rebecca, I love you. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done— they’re just things. They’re nothing. But you’re not. The music, the busking, that’s special, but you’ve only ever played because you love to, and that’s how it is with me. So whatever’s wrong with you? It doesn’t matter. I’ll help you. Alright?”
Tears spilled out of Rebecca’s closed eyes, and somehow this was even more horrible than the moths. When they opened again they were deeply glazed, and yet somehow they focused on my face.
It was with a nasty jolt I realised they’d never done so before. She was forever looking aside, or away, or just past your shoulder, like an animal that shirks the challenge of another’s gaze. It was just how she was, and I’d understood it, the comfort of it.
Disconcerted, I pressed her face against my chest, not wanting to meet that new stare.
“How did it feel when I left you?” she said into my collar.
“I don’t know. Hopeless. Sort of confusing.”
I squirmed slightly.
“I told you. It was like you were dead.”
Rebecca pulled away from me. Her thin, white mouth was smiling.
“Okay,” she said. “I think I believe it. You do love me.”
Suddenly the stink in the room seemed overwhelming; my vision swam with its acridity. Yet my hands found themselves beneath the woollen poncho, tugging it up over her head, and she was nude beneath it, nude and quivering and grey.
I ran my fingers over each separate rib, into the channels between them, and squeezed her hollow hips until I heard her gasp between her teeth. The knot of sheets and clothing tumbled off the bed as I tried to bring a heat to her body, but as ever she was cold, but in the end it didn’t matter.
My tongue, my flesh was warm, a match for her sickly chill. I kissed the goose bumps from her inner thighs and we made love even as the stench roiled thick around us.
Rebecca refused to lie still when we were done. Naked, she fetched the violin from across the room and tucked it under her chin, her face half-hidden in hair, and played something that should have been happy but wasn’t, not from her.
I listened to her in silence.
Sometimes, when she’d played for me in the past, I would speak to her, but the idea of doing so now seemed vulgar and obscene. When she finished the piece she didn’t put down the violin, only glanced away from me, which I took as my subtle cue to leave.
After we’d both dressed Rebecca saw me to the door, but I turned to the bathroom, thinking to freshen up before I headed out.
“Oh, come on,” said Rebecca, laughing. “You only live across the hallway. Water isn’t cheap, you know.”
Rolling my eyes, I walked across to my own door and turned to see that Rebecca hadn’t yet shut herself into her apartment, merely standing in the murky dark within.
“Rebecca?” I said, hesitantly.
That was all. She looked at me for a long time before she said, tenderly, “I love you, too.”
Then she was gone, pulling the door shut behind her. I heard the violin playing throughout the night, mournful and weird, like an alien’s funeral dirge.
Eventually I got out of bed and implored to be let in, but the violin played over me as though I wasn’t there. If the other neighbours heard it they made no attempt to investigate the racket, long used to a jungle of noises at all hours. The swoop of music carried on well into the early morning, perhaps the most beautiful and elaborate song that Rebecca had ever played.
I couldn’t say when the melody ceased; I only realised it had when somebody knocked on my door at six AM, the only sound being the mutter of conversation out in the corridor. Rubbing my eyes with a scrunched fist, I got up to see who wanted me at so harsh an hour.
To my amazement I found myself face to face with the building’s landlord, whom I had rarely seen. He’d missed half his stubble whilst shaving, and he looked pasty, drawn. Here was another man that hadn’t slept a wink, and for this alone I had some sympathy.
“This is yours,” he said, abruptly, with a downwards gesture. “Suppose so, anyway, though there’s no note or anything.”
I glanced down see a battered violin case leaning against the wall.
“But that’s Rebecca’s,” I protested, in confusion.
The landlord flinched. He tossed a quick look over his shoulder at the opposite apartment, whose door, I realised, was open.
Men in peculiar suits traipsed out, carrying Rebecca’s possessions in plastic bags. Assorted neighbours stood about the hallway, goggle-eyed, in the way of it all. A fearful cramp ripped through my abdomen.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s happened to Rebecca?”
I grabbed the landlord by the arm so hard his wrist clicked audibly. He swallowed, releasing himself from my grip with a gruff gentleness.
“I’m sorry, mate,” he said. “It’s bloody awful. But apparently the girl— a friend of yours? Girlfriend? Well, she paid her rent six months in advance, said she was going on one of her crazy travels. She was always doing it, so I didn’t have any reason to think any different. But—”
I sensed what was coming, and still I asked the expected question.
“What do you mean?”
A lump bobbed in the landlord’s skinny throat, and he winced.
“I’m sorry to say this, fella, but she killed herself. In the bathroom. Didn’t speak to no one, didn’t tell a soul. ‘Course no one thought to check on her, so she just got left there. And it gets pretty chilly in that room, ‘specially over the winter, so I guess she only just started to… smell. But we all thought it was the sewage system til this morning. We found the door open, and there she was. Poor kid.”
The landlord shrugged.
“Seems like she didn’t want no one to know.”
Numb-fingered, I picked up the violin case and took it into my room where I sat with it draped across my knee, just looking at it, nothing more. It was only when I saw the scratched surface was wet and shining that I realised I’d started to cry.
I closed my eyes and tried to remember what Rebecca had looked like, grasping desperately for an image, even one. But, like faraway music, her features drifted away from me, and all that I could recall in detail was how cold she had been, the night before, when I had stripped the clothes from her body.
Yet in time I cleaved to that memory, because it was the only thing, but for the violin, that I had left of Rebecca.